Castillo, Ana: 1953—: Novelist, Poet, and Essayist
Ana Castillo: 1953—: Novelist, poet, and essayist
Emerging from the ferment of radical Chicano thought that shaped her ideas as a student in the 1970s, Ana Castillo was long known as a writer who was vigorously critical of the dominant Anglo-American mainstream and who worked to create alternative visions of what American society could become. "I was a Chicana protest poet, a complete renegade—and I continue to write that way," Castillo told Publishers Weekly. Yet by the beginning of the 21st century, Castillo's sheer gift for storytelling had brought her a substantial popular readership. Leaving the academic world, where she had made a living for much of her adult life, Castillo began to write full-time in the 1990s.
That storytelling bent, Castillo has said, had roots in her Mexican-American family background. Castillo was born in Chicago on June 15, 1953; her parents came to Chicago from the southwestern U.S. "I've written since I was very little," Castillo told Melus. "I wrote poetry and wrote stories and drew on whatever I could, painted on whatever I could—anything, any piece of paper that was around." Nevertheless, her parents did not encourage her creative impulses, steering her toward a common path at the time for verbally inclined young Latinas—she was sent to secretarial school."I'm a lousy typist and I've always had this aversion to authority, so I knew that I wouldn't get far in that atmosphere" she told Melus.
Became Disillusioned with Art Studies
Instead, Castillo enrolled in junior college and then at Northern Illinois University, scrambling to finance her classes through a combination of grants and various jobs. At first she studied art, but became discouraged in courses that did little to encourage her unique perspective. She had more luck with poetry, giving a reading of her own poems when she was 20 and seeing her first poems published before she graduated from Northern Illinois in 1975. Nevertheless, she went on for a Master's degree at the University of Chicago not in fine arts, but in Latin American studies. After her initial negative experiences as an art student, Castillo has always been leery of writing classes and fiction workshops.
Already as an undergraduate, Castillo had adopted a radical political outlook and had come to a strong consciousness of her own identity as a subject of dual oppression—as a woman and as a Mexican American. In an essay in her book Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma, Castillo argued that she has "much more in common with an Algerian woman" than with a Mexican man. Now she began to read voraciously, encountering the works of the Latin American "magical realist" school and of African American female writers such as Toni Morrison (herself influenced by magical realism). She published a "chap-book," a small, self-published volume of poetry called Otro Canto, in 1977, and wrote and published several other books of poetry. One of them, The Invitation (1981) was published with the help of a grant from the Playboy Foundation.
At a Glance . . .
Born June 15, 1953, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Raymond and Rachel Rocha Castillo; children: Marcel Ramon Herrera. Education: Northern Illinois University, B.A., 1975; University of Chicago, M.A., 1979; University of Bremen (Germany), Ph.D., 1991.
Career: Instructor in Ethnic Studies, Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa, CA, 1975; writer-in-residence, Illinois Arts Council, 1977; history lecturer, Northwestern University,1980-81; Urban Gateways of Chicago, poet-in-residence, 1980-81; instructor in women's studies, San Francisco State University, 1986-87; G California State University at Chico, visiting professor of creative writing and fiction, 1988-89; instructor, Department of English, University of New Mexico, 1989, 1991-92; professor of creative writing, Mount Holyoke College, 1994; published story "Juan in a Million" in USA Today, 1997.
Selected awards: American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1986, for The Mixquiahuala Letters; California Arts Council fellowship for fiction, 1989; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for poetry, 1990, 1995.
Addresses: Home—Chicago, IL; Agent— c/o Susan Bergholz, 17 W. 10th St. #5, New York, NY 10011.
Castillo began her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, when she was 23, and it was finally published in 1986. The novel is cast in the form of a series of letters between two Latina friends: Teresa, a poet in California, and Alicia, an artist in New York City. Like the 1963 novel Hopscotch by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, Castillo's novel requires the reader to choose between one of several possible orderings of the material. Castillo arrived at the idea independently, but dedicated the novel to Cortázar in tribute. The Mixquiahuala Letters was published by the small Bilingual Review Press in Tempe, Arizona.
Inspired by Telenovelas
Castillo's second novel, Sapogonia, was also published by Bilingual Review, but the giant Doubleday/Anchor publishing house acquired the rights to both books after the success of Castillo's next book, So Far from God (1993), which was published by another major firm, W.W. Norton. So Far from God, seen by some as taking its structure from the popular Latin American telenovela television soap operas, was a kaleidoscopic story of the experiences of a Latin American matriari-arch and her four daughters. Incorporating folklore, magical episodes, recipes, and vivid scenes of Mexican-Amerian life, the book brought Castillo a new level of fame.
Although she had earned a living through a series of academic appointments (and finished a Ph.D. degree at the University of Bremen in Germany in 1991), Castillo now began to write full-time. One new fruit of her labors was the story collection Loverboys (1996), which was generally positively reviewed and dealt with a large variety of romantic and erotic relationships, heterosexual and homosexual. Massacre of the Dreamers (the title refers to an episode from Mexico's pre-Columbian history) was based on materials from her Ph.D. thesis, but incorporated unusual creative elements within the essay form. Castillo also edited several collections of writings by other Latin American authors, one of them dealing with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Castillo has renounced the Catholic religion, but, she told Melus in 1997, "Catholicism is embedded in our culture, in our psyche."
Story Published in USA Today
That same year, Castillo wrote a story called "Juan in a Million" that was published in that most mainstream of American print outlets, the Sunday-newspaper insert USA Weekend. Castillo herself would not agree, however, that her writing has moved in a mainstream direction; an enthusiastic promoter of a community of Latina writers, she believes that the growth in the field of Latin American women's writing as a whole has allowed alternative viewpoints to gain wider exposure. She continued to enjoy wide success with the novel Peel My Love Like an Onion (1999), which was set in Chicago's gypsy community and told the story of a handicapped flamenco dancer, and with a collection of her poetry, I Ask the Impossible, published in 2001.
Castillo rejects the term "Hispanic" in favor of "Latina" or "Chicana," arguing that the first of these terms signifies a determination to become assimilated into mainstream American society. She herself coined the term "Xicanisma," ("Chican-isma") to denote a specifically Mexican-American brand of feminism that aimed toward a new vision of society untouched by male-dominated, European-derived social structures. As Castillo put it in a Mester interview quoted in Feminist Writers, "[I]t's not about assimilation, it's really about looking for ways for us to survive as people." Considered one of the most prominent American writers of Latin descent by 2002, Ana Castillo remained a prolific and energetic communicator of an idealistic stance that sought to right the injustices of American history.
Zero Makes Me Hungry (poetry), Scott, Foresman, 1975.
i close my eyes (to see) (poetry), Washington State University Press, 1976.
Otro canto (poetry), Alternativa Publications, ca. 1977.
Clark Street Counts (play), produced 1983.
Women Are Not Roses, Arte Publico, 1984.
The Mixquiahuala Letters (novel), 1986.
My Father Was a Toltec: Poems, West End Press, 1988, reprinted as My Father Was a Toltec and Selected Poems 1973-1988, Norton, 1995.
Sapogonia: An Anti-Romance in 3/8 Meter (novel), Bilingual Press, 1990.
So Far from God (novel), Norton (New York City), 1993.
Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma, University of New Mexico Press, 1994.
Loverboys (stories), W. W. Norton, 1996.
Peel My Love Like an Onion (novel), 1999.
I Ask the Impossible (poems), Doubleday, 2001.
Contemporary Women Poets, St. James, 1998.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
Feminist Writers, St. James, 1996.
Library Journal, October 15, 2000, p. 53; January 1, 2001, p. 111.
MELUS, Fall 1997, p. 133.
Publishers Weekly, August 12, 1996, p. 59.
The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1997, p. 201.
Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group. 2001. (http: //www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).
—James M. Manheim
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Castillo, Ana: 1953—: Novelist, Poet, and Essayist